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Brooks and Marcus on Fallout From Immigration, Rangel, WikiLeaks

July 30, 2010 at 6:31 PM EST
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Columnists David Brooks of The New York Times and Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post speak with Jim Lehrer about the week's biggest news including part of Arizona's immigration law being struck down, ethics charges facing Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and the implications of WikiLeaks publishing military secrets online.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Brooks and Marcus, New York Times columnist David Brooks, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. Mark Shields is away.

David, I hope you heard what was just said about journalism skills and all of that and what kind of training it takes.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I would be a fantastic autoworker, as you know.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, right.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: Look, how do you read the political fallout from the Arizona judge decision on immigration?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think it’s perilous. I’m not a big supporter of that law. Nonetheless, you have got a population of people who think they are not being listened to by the authorities. They think illegal immigration is a big problem in their state for crime, for budget reasons, for a whole variety of reasons.

They think there are a lot of people in this country who do not live in neighborhoods where illegal immigrants are an issue, except maybe as gardeners, and who are not in jobs where illegal immigrants are competing. And they think those people aren’t listening.

So, they go ahead and they pass a law, democratically, and it gets overturned by a judge. And whatever the merits of her decision, I think there’s going to be a political backlash. And, this year, it will be a strong issue. It will raise the level of anger, and, in partisan terms, help Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: Help Republicans and hurt Democrats?

Do you agree, Ruth?

RUTH MARCUS: Not so much, actually. I think that the — I understand the anger, and I understand the frustration, and I understand the concern about having judges overturn democratically passed laws, however flawed those laws are.

But the folks who are revved up about illegal immigration, who are angry at the Obama administration for filing this lawsuit, who are angry at the judge, who happened to be a Clinton appointee, for blocking the law from going forward, they are already pre-revved. They don’t need anything to make them angrier at the Obama administration.

So, I don’t see that extra bump from them. And, on the other side, the folks who are, in the Democratic base, a little unhappy with the president, I don’t think that they are going to be revved up and particularly energized by the administration fighting the Arizona law.

But, at the same time, they know he’s not going to be able to deliver comprehensive immigration reform, certainly not before the election — it would be very difficult to do it afterwards — to the Hispanic community. This is at least something that he can give to that community and to others who are concerned about providing a rational immigration system, not that it’s going to help him in 2010, but it might be helpful in 2012.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see that, David, that there — there is another side of this, that, among Latinos, but others…

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: … who think at least — on the Democratic side, at least, that the president is doing something?

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t think…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I don’t see evidence that it is happening. There has been a lot of heartburn in the Latino community here in Washington among the activists that more has not been done in immigration.

And, clearly, the White House and the Democrats want to get Latino voters out to the polls. But, so far, when you look at the polls on intensity, so far, you just don’t see it. And just on the number of people that who are upset about immigration, there is the hard-core talk radio types who — Ruth is right — are always going to be for the Republicans, and never going to be for Obama.

But I’m really struck by how broad hostility toward illegal immigration is. And you go to town hall meetings, it is Republican or Democrat, the question always comes up. It is always a similar sort of question. How big can a fence be?

And, so, I think it is a broad issue. You know, economically, it’s just not that important. But, symbolically, it’s a sense of playing by the rules. And, so, I think it’s a broad issue that touches a lot of people.

RUTH MARCUS: It’s obviously an emotional issue.

I guess my point is that the people who are so angered about people they see or imagine to be taking their jobs, they are already angry. They already have so many beefs with the administration, correct or not, that I’m not sure I see this as upping what is already a pretty high intensity level of unhappiness that is going to cost the Democrats in November.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking about what is going to cost the Democrats in November, where does the Charlie Rangel situation fit in?

(LAUGHTER)

RUTH MARCUS: Very nicely done.

JIM LEHRER: That is what is called a segue.

(LAUGHTER)

RUTH MARCUS: This is a disaster for Charlie Rangel. And it is…

JIM LEHRER: As an individual.

RUTH MARCUS: As an individual, and it is a near disaster for Democrats as a party.

You could imagine — if Charlie Rangel had colluded with John Boehner, the House minority leader, and said, I want to help you guys out, as a secret Republican, what would be the best way to handle this, and the best timing, it would be, let’s have a trial, a full-fledged trial, with witnesses and open hearings and testimony, in September, right before the election, so we can hear a lot of clips on Republican commercials about — from Nancy Pelosi, the speaker, about how she is going to drain the swamp.

It’s unbelievable. And it’s not that that is going to energize voters. I mean, I am a little bit contradicting myself.

JIM LEHRER: It’s OK. It happens all the time.

RUTH MARCUS: Yes. Those voters are already unhappy, but it just diminishes a sense that these guys, the Democrats, are any different from the other guys, the other sleazy guys who got kicked out, that anything can ever change in Washington, that they are all corrupt. It is just the last thing on earth the Democrats need.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

And I think these scandals do have a — actually, a big cumulative effect. I mean, it certainly happened with the Republicans. I saw it, in Britain, happen to the Tory party. When you get a bunch of them, people just say enough, enough, enough, even if they are not particularly ideological or political people.

And the Rangel thing is just an illustration of the sorts of character flaw that grows. I have no beef against Charlie Rangel as a — well, I didn’t until a couple years ago — as a person. He’s a very charming guy, lively guy, quite a good legislator, actually, to be fair.

But you do get arrogant. You do get a sense, the rules aren’t applying to me. And most germane this week, you get a sense of, I’m right, and they’re all wrong, and I will show them.

And it’s really amazing. The Democrats are not happy about this, most Democrats, this idea that he has decided to fight this, rather than just withdraw or concede or do something.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID BROOKS: And he was given avenues to do this it. And he said no. And, presumably, he wants to save his reputation. Well, good luck to him. But he must have persuaded himself he can do so. I don’t know what evidence he looks at.

JIM LEHRER: What about some of the rhetoric yesterday from some of the — from some of the members of the committee, which said that the very integrity of the House of Representatives and the Congress of the United States is at stake in this? Do you see it that big?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, you get a cumulative — people have — you know, we talked about this recently. The public image of Congress is at a historic low, 11 percent approval, 11 percent…

JIM LEHRER: One of the members mentioned that yesterday, in fact.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: So, in some sense, their credibility is already hanging by a very slender thread. And this will just exacerbate that.

And he is — he is not only a House member. He was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, the most important committee, and so a great symbol of the House. And it will just be one more nail in the coffin of Washington prestige.

JIM LEHRER: But what about the old concept of innocent until proven guilty?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, I think that’s for criminal trials. And you don’t have to — sure, the committee, that is the kind of trial body, should be open-minded.

But, look, nobody has ever accused the House Ethics Committee of being trigger-happy. I was here talking about whether he would give up the chairmanship back in December of 2009.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

RUTH MARCUS: This — the House Ethics Committee is divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats. It is a body that is designed to do nothing.

So, when it rouses itself to do something, you know it’s because something — I’m sorry — I read the report today. You cannot read that report about what Mr. Rangel is alleged to have done and think this was adequate, acceptable behavior.

If anything, I’m roused right now that the — apparently, the sanction that was recommended and what — that he refused to plead to was a simple reprimand, because, actually, I think his behavior is more serious than a reprimand, which is one of the lesser penalties for the House to impose.

JIM LEHRER: Do you buy the reporting which says that the sticking point has been from the beginning he — he will not admit that he did anything wrong? Is — right?

RUTH MARCUS: He — from what I read today, he seems to have had ample opportunities to admit that he did something wrong.

And let’s talk about some of the allegations. He failed to report $600,000 in income on his financial-disclosure forms, not forgetting one or two things, but forgetting a whole slew of stuff. He failed — and this is the former chairman of the tax-writing committee — failed to pay taxes on all of his income.

And most disturbing, he was talking to lobbyists and talking to companies and soliciting money from them for the Charlie Rangel Leadership Center while they had business before his committee, because there is a great line in one of the documents I read, the official documents, that, well, you might be able to avoid death as a legislative matter, but nobody can avoid taxes as a legislative matter. So, everybody has business before his committee.

He was asking them for money. AIG, of all the companies, said they had some worries about the headline appearance of giving him money.

(LAUGHTER)

RUTH MARCUS: When AIG thinks it might be a little bit of a sticky ethical wicket, you got a problem.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: Moving again to ethical sticky wickets, the Wikipedia — not Wikipedia — sorry — WikiLeaks…

DAVID BROOKS: WikiLeaks, yes.

JIM LEHRER: … thing of the — the military documents involving Afghanistan, the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs said yesterday, this is — lives are now at risk because of this; this is a national security issue in a major way.

How do you read it?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. The defense experts I have heard from say that it’s a threat, maybe not quite as strong as Mullen said. Mullen came out very strongly. Karzai has come out very strongly, Gates very strongly.

But it is certainly a threat to those Afghans. “The Times of London” did a very quick look through what is online and found the names and villages of Afghans, a great number of them, without too much trouble.

JIM LEHRER: And those — those have not appeared in print, but they are online, because they put the whole…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. There are two things to say.

First, that makes it — that puts their lives at risk, and it makes it much less likely people will cooperate. And that is just bad for our troops. The second issue and I think the meta-issue about this whole thing is the — and I hate to sound like an old media dinosaur, but it is why we have institutions like The Washington Post and The New York Times…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: … because we take documents. We provide context. We have conversations with people in the military and say, what is good, what is bad, what’s — you know, are we crossing any lines here? And those don’t always — aren’t always happy conversations, but they’re conversations.

And then we actually, in an ideal world, are reasonably careful about not getting people killed. And I’m not sure WikiLeaks has a defense, but it doesn’t seem very firm compared to what a normal, mainstream media — old-media institution would do.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read it?

RUTH MARCUS: It is not what a normal old-media — as a fellow dinosaur, dinosette, whatever it is…

(LAUGHTER)

RUTH MARCUS: The Washington Post just went through this with the administration on the piece we did about top-secret America, where the argument was, lives could be lost because you are identifying where these buildings are, and, yes, it is public domain, but now it is on the Internet.

Very similar. I’m a little bit kind of just inherently, instinctively skeptical of claims of national security harm, because they have historically tended to be overblown. I also think that the WikiLeaks folks did exert at least — expend at least some effort in trying to keep some of the more dangerous and explosive and national security-related information out of the public domain.

But I share David’s concern, and I certainly wouldn’t want that on my conscience.

JIM LEHRER: Do you both agree that, like it or not, this has changed things forever for people in our line of work?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, I have already felt some pushback from the Stanley McChrystal story. I think the military was quite burned about journalism: How much access should we give?

And they are certainly going to be careful what — one of the things that’s happened is, they have shared information down the chain of command. And I think they’re going to pull back, because they’re afraid some junior officer might leak something, as probably happened in this case.

JIM LEHRER: As a result of this — of this…

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Right. So, it’s harmful down the road.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Do you agree?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, time — times have changed. Things — there is no such thing, really, as off the record any more. It used to be, when you were on the campaign plane, it was a kind of news-free zone. Now the candidate goes to the back of the plane, and everybody gets out their little video cameras.

So, it’s a different world. It’s — you know, we can rail against it, but we would just look like dinosaurs.

JIM LEHRER: But we’re part of it.

RUTH MARCUS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: We have got to live in it.

RUTH MARCUS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: We have got to live in it.

OK. Thank you all very much.